The Murder of James Sheffield
IRWINTON: April 28, 1888: Mr. James Arthur Sheffield was taking a pleasant stroll down the street near Irwinton's Academy on a warm, fair Saturday night one hundred and twenty five years ago. A waning gibbous moon was just coming up in the East casting a pale white glow on just another peaceful spring night in the capital of Wilkinson County.
At the appointed closing time of 8:00 p.m., Sheffield, accompanied by Messers Rutland, shut and locked tight his store doors and set out for home. The men parted at the fork in the road, just as they usually did.
Shortly thereafter, the 46-year-old Sheffield left the town's business district. As he was within hailing distance of his home, where his wife Winnie and daughter Minnie were near their front door awaiting his arrival, a shot gun blast rang out in the near darkness. The Rutlands saw the bright flash and heard the loud report of gunfire. Not hearing any fatal screams, the Rutlands thought not too much of the commotion and went on to their homes in preparation for the upcoming Sabbath.
The murderer rifled through Sheffield's pockets, grabbed his loot and dashed off into the darkness, crossing the split rail fence at the school house yard and leaving blood stains to mark his incriminating trail.
The murderer rapidly ran across the abandoned campus for nearly 150 yards before stopping to rip open Sheffield's satchel to look for folding money and silver coins - Sheffield's usual cargo on his evening strolls home. The gunman sprinted across a pasture to the northwestern corner of town. Across a freshly plowed oat field, the distinctive footprints of the killer marked his westward escape route.
Just as the town's clocks were striking nine o'clock, an older black man and a young white boy came upon Sheffield's bloody, lifeless body. At first, the pedestrians thought that the man lying in the road was simply intoxicated from an excessive bit of Saturday night revelry. Upon further examination, a fatal, massive wound was found in the back of Sheffield's head. The boy quickly raced to the nearest home to report the matter.
It was said that early on Sunday morning every male inhabitant of Irwinton joined a posse formed by Sheriff I. J. Fountain. That may or not be true, but it reasonable to believe that the justice seeking squad was quite large and doggedly determined to find their man, whoever he was.
The posse moved out from the resting place of the abandoned satchel, cut open by a somewhat dull knife, with their eyes focused on the ground and looking for any sign of footprints and blood drops. Sheriff Fountain's deputies followed the trail up to the home of one Martha Collins. Inquiring of the whereabouts of her son Will Collins, Mrs. Collins, a colored woman not suspected of any complicity in the matter, responded that her son had gone up to the home of Shade Coates.
The posse followed that same trail three quarters of a mile up to Coates home, where they found the barefooted, capitulant twenty-year-old Will Collins. When the lawmen burst into the room, they found Collins sitting on a bed playing his harp as if he had not a care in the world.
Sheriff Fountain questioned Collins as to his whereabouts at the time of his murder. Collins responded that he had gone to bed early, but after being awakened, he went to the home of Coates.
A search of the Collins' pockets revealed just more than twenty one dollars in cash, over half of it in "V" nickels and silver Liberty dimes - an agglomeration that a retail merchant would be carrying home with him after closing his store.
The investigators found a double barreled shot gun, one of its barrels having been recently fired. Inside the other unfired barrel were tiny scraps of newspaper wadding - in particular, fragments from the February 8, 1888 edition of the Wrightsville Headlight. Bits and pieces of the same issue were found at the murder scene. It was surmised that the blood got on Collins' gun when the killer reached inside the clothing and the bag of the victim to retrieve the missing money. A small blood stain was also found on the Collins' vest. The blood evidence was sent to Dr. Clifton, a renowned microscopist, for analysis.
Collins explained how he came upon such an unusually large sum of money, at least for him, by stating that an unknown man approached him and offered to pay him $20.00 for the use of his gun and his shoes for an hour. His account changed when he claimed that he borrowed $25.00 from his uncle to help him out of a financial "scrape." That claim was discounted by the uncle, who told law enforcement officers that he could barely put together $2.00 to lend. More seemingly ad-libbed and totally contrary accounts followed.
Highly damning evidence came from eyewitnesses who saw Collins in town during the hours following the murder. Shade Coates, a shoe maker in Sheffield's store, was initially arrested as an accomplice because of his ability to provide the killer (his friend Collins) with inside information and the testimony of witnesses who saw Coates at the Collins home the night of the murder.
Will Collins was taken to a Macon jail for his own safety. While there, witnesses said that he was always at ease, describing the prisoner as "the gayest of the gay." Not a bit of trouble was brought the way of his captors, who stated that he played sports with his fellow prisoners without a single indication of the villainous crime he was charged with.
A trial was held in the first week of October 1888. With no direct evidence to prove Collins' guilt, prosecutors put together a solid, logically connected case of circumstantial evidence sufficient to establish the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
After listening to all of the evidence, the jury carefully deliberated and pronounced a verdict of guilty with a recommendation of life in prison, a sentence which began with hard labor in the coal mines of Dade County, Georgia. When Collins, who was constantly complaining of chest pains, left his prison cell, he was described as "a living skeleton."
To the unanimous jurors, their decision was solely based on a series of circumstances. Many of them firmly believed that new evidence would surface to implicate the true killer. But in the end, none of the twelve white men wanted to allow Collins to get off scot free and to strike his harp and ignore the trickling tears of little Minnie